Can Therapy Save Your Relationship?

People come to couples counselling for many reasons. Not everyone who seeks couples counselling is having significant problems in their relationship, but for many it is a last ditch effort to save a relationship on the brink of ending. We don’t want to let love die, but we also can’t continue loving in a way that is causing us pain. So, we seek help.

What can couples counselling really accomplish, though? Couples counselling can be a significant investment of time and money and it’s not uncommon for one person to have to convince their partner to give it a shot. From my experience, it can be scary to walk into the therapy room with your partner. If it is a relationship we desperately want to save, it can feel vulnerable and risky to have hope. It’s a lot. It makes sense that we want an answer to the question of what it can do for us before we begin the process.

I could tell you that from my experience it works but I’m only one person so that doesn’t exactly give you much to go on. So, what does the research say?

What does the research say about relationship counselling?

In 2020, researchers at the University of Miami conducted a meta-analysis of couple therapy. Essentially, this means that they looked at a bunch of different studies that essentially asked the same thing: is couple therapy effective?

They looked at 58 different studies representing over 2,000 different couples. Their research indicated that couple therapy had a large effect on relationship satisfaction, whereas couples in a control group/waitlist did not significantly improve.

The meta analysis also showed that couples therapy had significant impacts on self-reported and observed communication, emotional intimacy, and partners’ actual behaviours. Overall, couple therapy was shown to have large effects on key relationship domains, and the gains were shown to be maintained in short- and long-term follow-ups.

But… what kind of couples therapy is right for me?

It is one thing to know that couples counselling can work, but it‘s hard to know where to go from there. Depending on where you live, there might be hundreds of therapists who support couples. Who is right for you?

It might be beneficial to understand two of the most common approaches used with couples as a starting point. The contextual model of counselling tells us that it doesn’t matter what technique a therapist uses, what matters is that the therapist and the client believe in that approach.

Types of Couples Therapy

The Gottman Method

A common training that therapists take to support their work with couples is The Gottman Method:

“The goals of Gottman Method Couples Therapy are to disarm conflicting verbal communication; increase intimacy, respect, and affection; remove barriers that create a feeling of stagnancy; and create a heightened sense of empathy and understanding within the context of the relationship.”

I’ve seen a Gottman therapist and can say that when they mention that they conduct an assessment of the couples relationship, they mean it! I remember the assessment that I completed prior to my first session with a Gottman therapist caught me by surprise by its length and depth.

The results of this assessment provided a lot of really useful information that our therapist shared in sessions with us. It allowed him to focus on aspects of our relationship that most needed care and attention.

This approach provides you for ways of resolving or living with your problems. According to Dr. and Julie Gottman’s research, 69% of relational conflicts are perpetual — and those are the ones that are the focus in this kind of couples counselling.

“Although you may feel your situation is unique, we have found that all marital conflicts fall into two categories: Either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual, which means they will be part of your lives forever, in some form or another.”

Dr. John Gottman

In short, this approach might be for you if you appreciate a thorough and practical approach to solving your problems. The Gottman Method Couples Therapy may also provide you with valuable insight, which for some people is a crucial part of understanding and working through problems.

Emotion-focused Couples Therapy (EFCT)

The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) describes Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) as follows:

“Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is a well-known humanistic approach to psychotherapy formulated in the 1980’s and developed in tandem with the science of adult attachment, a profound developmental theory of personality and intimate relationships. […]. The EFT model prioritizes emotion and emotional regulation as the key organizing agents in individual experience and key relationship interactions.”

In other words, with EFT you can expect to spend a lot of time feeling your feelings. Your therapist will work with you and your partner(s) to identify the cycle that is running the show in your relationship.

For example, one partner A feels neglected and lonely in the relationship so they end up reaching out to their partner (B) who experiences it as “lashing out.” This causes partner B to withdraw, which causes partner A get louder and more desperate for connection, which pushes partner B even further into withdrawl.

You may have a completely different pattern, but the EFT therapist will work with you to understand the “dance” you are in and be able to experience vulnerable feelings in the presence of your partner. If you appreciate emotion, insight, and what might feel like “deep” work with your partner, you may like emotion-focused couples therapy as an approach.

Is couples therapy for my relationship?

Most of us yearn to create homes that are safe and filled with love — and often a relationship with a partner plays a big role in that. Only, for many of us, love is far from easy and relationships can be a source of hard work. I do like to believe, though, that if we have love in our lives it can expand our hearts in ways that not only allow us to build the life we want, but can also help us to heal.

A common trope is the wife who drags her husband to the therapy room — not quite kicking and screaming — but in quiet defiance. Though a therapist might be able to work through this dynamic, it can be hard to achieve change as a couple if one person doesn’t want change to happen. Change can be scary and there is safety in familiarity, even if it is putting stress on the relationship. Some people may just need some gentle encouragement or education, but for others it might take time for them to come around.

If you believe that your relationship is in need of therapeutic support but your partner does not want to seek that support, it can be challenging and we might feel angry, or perhaps a bit hurt that our partners don’t “love us enough” to put in the work. Though these situations can be incredibly difficult to navigate, they are not uncommon and you are certainly not alone.